Jumping on the drum: Aboriginal people need more than ‘merely sounds’

Drumming has brought a sense of purpose and community to Melina Margetts, but it is a culture that remains out of reach for many others in the process of overcoming mental health issues.

Margetts, a Wiradjuri woman who grew up near Hay in western NSW, has been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety and she says the only way she can manage it is through making music with friends.

“It’s been really tough because I know that I need to make more music and I can feel the anxiety and I feel the depression getting worse and not better,” Margetts, who has completed the dance therapy program at Canberra’s Nutmeg Music Therapy, says.

We need more drumming at schools: Aboriginal people’s mental health should take priority Read more

For Indigenous people struggling with mental health problems, it’s a struggle that is complex and heartbreaking. Drumming or other forms of improvised music provides an outlet for people who feel stuck or disconnected in their lives and can also be a form of self-healing.

While Margetts and many others in the music therapy program at Nutmeg have found creative ways to encourage their communities to tap into this tradition, at a national level Aboriginal people are still not getting access to this kind of cultural therapy or cultural drumming in schools.

In Australia, only about 14 out of every 1,000 10- to 19-year-olds undertake music education, compared with 44 out of every 1,000 of their non-Indigenous peers. The handful of other Indigenous people who are on the government’s educational songbook – at the time, the only Aboriginal-specific songbook in existence – are encouraged to attend music workshops designed to foster positive mental health.

If there is a modern-day Indigenous equivalent to the benefits that some have personally experienced from the art and philosophy of the Yorta Yorta and other cultural groups, that activity is not currently available.

“It would take a while for that to happen and I don’t think it’s that easy to organise,” says Ian McAnulty, a music therapist with Nutmeg Music Therapy. “With the Yorta Yorta I was trying to put it on government-funded cards – to get Indigenous people to the music classes.”

While the capital would be home to some of the next great Indigenous artists, there are limitations on how much cultural integration is possible in the age of cultural transformation. McAnulty says that while music therapy helps people release emotions, they may still be burning inside.

“There’s not as much integration there and not quite as much grief,” McAnulty says. “When people have self-harm things, there are things that need to be looked at. And then things may get too scary.”

It can also be frustrating for some of those who develop relationships with others and make music, when one’s own culture is stripped away.

“Even now, it can be such a struggle for families and sometimes [the best way] is not even involving the family,” he says. “If you’re away from home and then you go home, it can be difficult to maintain a sense of community.”

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